Carbon capture and cover crops were among the topics discussed by panelists at the climate smart agriculture panel at Dakotafest on Wednesday morning. And they said that reducing carbon in the atmosphere is something that is slowly beginning to catch on amongst producers.
In addition to the perceived environmental benefits of reducing carbon emissions, there are general benefits that the producer can find by taking a mindful approach to the modern farming concept.
“Removing carbon from the air, that’s the overall goal here,” said Mike Pearson, who moderated the panel. “We’re happy as a clam with it in the soil. Anything that is carbon is organic, and if we’re building that in the soil, now we’re increasing fertilizer holding capacity. The soil is more alive. It can contain more water. It can contain more water, which in a drought year certainly matters.”
The panel included Andrew Walmsly, American Farm Bureau Federation Director of Congressional Relations, who gave an update on discussions in Washington, D.C. and Jared Knock, a producer from Carpenter, who shared what it means to South Dakota producers and the techniques he is using on his farm.
President Joe Biden earlier this year called on United States farmers to lead the way in offsetting greenhouse gas emissions to battle climate change. Experts estimate that farmers across the world can sequester a large enough portion of carbon through regenerative agriculture practices to avert the worst impacts of climate change.
Research indicates that removing carbon in the air and replenishing it in soil worldwide could result in a 10% reduction in carbon levels.
Though carbon capture is still a relatively up and coming concept, environmentally-minded agriculture is not. Walmsley said that carbon emissions in the United States are relatively lower than in other parts of the world, and have been for some time.
“We have a good story to tell in American agriculture. When you look at agricultural carbon emissions around the world, they account for about 25% of carbon emissions on average. Here in the United States, we’re at 10%,” Walmsly said. “And I think a real key piece is that in roughly two generations, we have increased our output in American agriculture by over 287%, while our input has remained flat.”
He noted that the ethanol and biodiesel industries also have worked to reduce greenhouse gasses, bringing them down by 71 million metric tons, which is equivalent to taking 17 million cars off the road every year.
“That’s technology that exists today,” Walmsly said.
Knock said there are two primary ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. The first is plant-level natural solutions and the second is mechanical removal of carbon from the atmosphere. The first method utilizes informed cover crop use to help keep carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere.
“Every corn seed removes 500 more times its weight in carbon than what it weighs when you put it in the ground,” Knock said.
The second method requires a mechanical system that pulls air from the atmosphere and processes it to remove the carbon.
“That’s a multi-billion dollar industry right now. It’s put out in the desert and it’s run by a square mile of solar panels. That energy runs the machine that sucks air out of the atmosphere, of which carbon makes up 0.03%. That’s all run off green energy,” Knock said.
Pearson said there are three main branches to the benefits of carbon removal, including the overall potential environmental benefits, the agronomic advantages and the monetary benefits that will hopefully come more into focus as leaders in Washington, D.C. learn about the issue and take measures to support it.
“There is the broader societal benefit, then there’s the agronomic advantages - higher water holding capacity, the ability to retain nutrients on the ground rather than having them washed into a watershed, and then there’s getting paid,” Pearson said. “(A producer can say) I can do these things, I can get the societal benefits, I can get some long term agronomic benefits.”
Then there is receiving payment for conducting those practices. The Biden administration now wants to steer $30 billion in farm aid money from the USDA Commodity Credit Corporation to pay farmers to implement sustainable practices and capture carbon in their soil.
“There is the broader societal benefit, then there’s the agronomic advantages - higher water holding capacity, the ability to retain nutrients on the ground rather than having them washed into a watershed, and then there’s getting paid.”
— Mike Pearson, moderator of the smart climate panel at 2021 Dakotafest
Walmsly said he believes the interest from producers is there if leaders in Washington, D.C. get on board. They already participate heavily in other conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, which seems to indicate they would be supportive of similar efforts that encouraged such farming practices and even compensated them for putting the work and materials in.
“When you look at conservation tiles and the practices that are going on - look across the country at the voluntary conservation programs, the wildlife programs. There is a little over 140 million acres. That is larger than the land areas of California and New York combined,” Walmsly said. “Can we build upon that, and what are the tools we need to get producers to continue with it?”
Pearson said interested producers can reach out to groups like the Soil Help Partnership or the American Farm Bureau for more information on how to proceed with taking on a method for carbon capture or for beneficial ways to implement a cover crop.